SEEDS OF THE KINGDOM

Third Sunday after Pentecost

TEXT: Mark 4:26-34

 [Jesus] said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how …” He also said … “the kingdom of God … is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet … it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs …” (Mark 4:26-27, 30-32)

In our gospel passage from Mark, Jesus speaks to his disciples—including us—about the Kingdom of God. Now, I don’t often give the kind of message where I say, “There are four important points here.” But, when I look at these two parables—both of them about seeds… Well, it seems to me that there are four important points here!

The first one is this: most of the essential things in life are invisible; but they are much more powerful than the things we can see. This starts with the Spirit of God, the Spirit that gives life. The Hebrew word for “spirit” is ruah (רוח), which means “wind” or “breath”—just the same as the Greek word pneuma (πνεύμα), which also means “spirit” or “breath.”

The connection is kind of obvious: without air—without breath—you cannot live. If you stop breathing, your spirit leaves you. Yet—just like the wind—you cannot see a person’s breath. Even outdoors in winter, what you see yourself breathing out is water vapor—it’s not really your breath. You cannot see your breath any more than you can see the wind. All you can see—if you look closely—is the rising and falling of your chest.

A similar principle extends to every facet of life. Consider love, mercy, self-respect. As concepts, these are kind of ethereal things. You can’t really see love—or mercy, or self-respect—as such.

But you can certainly see the evidence, or the results, of these things. You can see the impact they make.

Just as the breath of life is seen in the rising and falling of the chest, so can the love of God be seen: in the kindness of strangers, the acceptance of family members, the food on our tables. Likewise, mercy is seen in every act of compassion; and self-respect becomes visible when you treat yourself as a person who is far too important, too valuable, to destroy with materialism, substance abuse, or unhealthy habits.

One of the most important—and invisible—things in life is trust. Without trust a person cannot function. Without trust, you can never become close to another human being—or to God, for that matter.

And in fact, the most important thing we can do is to trust in God: trust in God that he will be our refuge and strength in times of trouble; trust in God that he will help us accomplish all the things he asks us to do; trust in God that he will give us the wisdom we need, the courage we need, the friends we need.

In the first parable we read today, Jesus teaches us about trust. You plant a seed, and it grows. Whether you are awake or asleep, the seed grows. It puts forth first a shoot, then a head, then the full kernel in the head. Through some unseen process, life emerges from the seed that is planted. In just the same way, abundant life emerges from the seed of trust planted in our hearts.

So, that’s point one: most of the essential things in life are invisible; but they are more powerful than the things we can see.

Here’s the second point: the greatest things emerge from the smallest things. The greatest accomplishments, the most successful lives—and, indeed, the Kingdom of God itself—all of these arise out of the smallest and least significant things.

Jesus speaks about this, too. He asks us to consider the mustard seed. It grows into a giant shrub, large enough for birds to shelter in—yet, it is tiny at first. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is like the mustard seed; and I would submit that his own life confirms that truth. The kingdom of God works—God works—with and through the little things.

Now, that flies in the face of the way the world thinks about life. The world is impressed by everything that is big, and grand, and flashy: expensive cars, grand houses, tall buildings, gigantic stages and tremendous sound systems. The world is impressed by big money, big fame, big status.

But God chooses to work with that which is small: a poor carpenter’s son; simple fishermen; you and me. The Bible says over and over again that God loves the little ones, the humble ones—the people that others despise and reject. Scripture tells us that the most important things are the little things, and that—in the end—they will replace the big things. They will overthrow rulers, and governments, and corporations. They will demonstrate the emptiness of wealth and power.

The signs of God’s Kingdom are not big churches, big congregations, or fantastic wealth.

No. God’s Kingdom is shown in bread and wine … food and drink … cups of cold water given in love … things that can be found at the corner store and in most people’s refrigerators. Ordinary stuff for ordinary people.

To be sure, sometimes God’s work is done by famous, high-profile people: Billy Grahams and Florence Nightingales, Mother Teresas and Desmond Tutus; but most often it is done—and done well—by unheard-of people like you and me.

Whenever we pour some coins into an outstretched hand, or help a person whose car is stalled in traffic, or give a can of beans and a box of macaroni to the Food Bank, or make a loaf of sandwiches for the homeless centre, or deliver “Meals on Wheels”, or pick up old candy wrappers and pop cans strewn in the park … All these little things—all these acts of care—are God’s work. Out of them grows the Kingdom of God.

God’s Kingdom is found in the bread we break; in our Sunday fellowship; in the meals we share at home. God’s Kingdom is made real whenever we look into the eyes of another person and see a fellow human being who is loved by God.

So, that’s point two: the greatest things emerge from the smallest things.

Here’s the third point: living faithfully means focusing on good, not on evil. It means believing that good will triumph over evil. It means not being Chicken Little. You remember her. Chicken Little was the picture of anxiety. She thought the sky was going to fall in, and she ran around hysterically, warning everybody, fretting and worrying.

We all know people who are just like that. All the time, they focus on the darkness and evil in the world. Unemployment, drug addiction, crime, pollution, war, environmental collapse … all these things haunt their waking hours. They are insecure about the future, and terrified of the present. They live with hearts full of fear: fear of failure, fear of losing what they value, fear of being alone, fear of death … and fear of life!

By focusing only on what is bad, they rob themselves of any chance for happiness. And the more they look at the bad, the worse it seems.

Jesus urges us to keep our focus on God, and on his goodness. If we do that, our lives will begin to shine. We will become radiant—“children of light,” as the Scripture says (Ephesians 5:8). We will not only discover God’s light within ourselves, we will bring light to others, as well.

So, how can we do that? How can we keep our focus on God? Well, there are several ways. One important way is by making time every day for prayer and Bible study. Another way is by taking note of the simple and ordinary miracles that surround us.

For example, now that the weather has turned nicer, I’ve been spending more time walking outdoors. And as a result of that, I have found myself paying attention to trees … that’s right—trees!

I think it is absolutely remarkable how trees grow. Did you know that a white spruce can grow up to 24 inches in a year? That means you can plant a four-foot-tall sapling today—and in only 15 years, it will be over 30 feet tall.

How do trees do that?

Corn, too, is remarkable stuff. You know about this if you grew up in southern Manitoba—or in a place like Taber, Alberta. You put a little seed in the ground in the spring, and—with the right conditions—by harvest time you have a plant that is over six feet high, and which contains literally thousands of kernels of corn.

How do they do it?

Growth is a remarkable thing. And growth is what our gospel lesson today is about: growth from a tiny seed to the largest of plants; growth which seems to occur as if by magic. You plant a seed. You provide some water and nutrition, you cultivate the ground.

But in the end, what happens is beyond human control. It is, ultimately, beyond our understanding. It is a miracle: the miracle of God—the miracle of life.

How can you stay focused on God? Look at the goodness in daily life—like loving families, and relationships that work. Or people who go out of their way to help strangers. Or parents who put their children first. These things do exist, you know! Look around, and you will see people working together, playing together, supporting one another. Focus on the good things—not on the bad—and you will be cultivating God’s seed growing in your heart.

So, there’s the third point: living faithfully means focusing on good, not on evil.

O.K. Here’s the fourth and final point: God is the Author of all good things. It is God who sows the seed and provides for its growth into the Kingdom of God. Each one of us is called to be God’s field. So allow yourself to be good ground for the Lord. Open yourself up to him. Worship him daily. Pray. Read your Bible. Cultivate your heart with his Word by studying it, thinking about it, acting upon it. Allow yourself to be God’s field—and remember, this is most easily done in the company of others who also want to be God’s field, who want their lives to be the place where his Kingdom grows.

And remember that the best things are invisible. Usually, the most important things look pretty insignificant to start with.

Listen to what Jesus is telling us: if you live faithfully by focusing on the good and opening yourself to God, he will do the rest. God will be your protector and shield. He will bring you into the fullness of his Kingdom. Even in the midst of trials, even in the midst of woe, God will give you peace and joy. And at the end, he will welcome you into the eternal realms. This is what Jesus has promised us—and this is the gospel we preach. Thanks be to God for it.

 

“WHAT ELSE CAN THEY THINK?”

Second Sunday After Pentecost

TEXT: Mark 3:20-35

Overheard at a funeral:

“What do non-believers think, when they hear us talk about life beyond the grave? What do they think when we say that God is active, and real, and works in our lives? What do they think when we tell them that God really does answer prayer?”

“I suppose they think we’re crazy. What else can they think?”

 

Jesus came home and, as usual, a crowd gathered—so many making demands on him that there wasn’t even time to eat. His friends heard what was going on and went to rescue him, by force if necessary. They suspected he was getting carried away with himself (Mark 3:20-21).*

That’s how the passage reads, quoted from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message. Now, I think Peterson’s wording—in most respects—makes clearer what Mark intended to say. But for some reason, he talks about Jesus’ “friends” coming to fetch him, even though all the other translations say it was his family. In the English Standard Version, for example, we read: “… when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind’.” *

The Amplified Bible says that “when those who belonged to Him (His kinsmen) heard it, they went out to take Him by force, for they kept saying, He is out of His mind (beside Himself, deranged)!” *

And that does seem to make more sense in relation to the rest of the passage, which says that Jesus’ “mother and brothers” showed up, wanting to talk to him. So, was it his friends or his family? Really, it hardly matters, does it? Apparently, the people who were closest to Jesus—even his mother, who had heard an angel foretell the birth of her son—thought he was insane!

What else could they think? Perhaps his mother was mostly concerned about his safety. But as for his siblings and friends … Well, what would you think if your brother—or your neighbour’s kid—announced that he was the Son of God?

For that matter, what do you think when someone tells you they’ve had an extraordinary—or supernatural—experience? Like an answer to prayer? Or a miraculous healing? Or even, simply, that they can feel the tangible presence of God in the room with them when they pray? Do you find it easy to believe … or hard to believe?

Michael Persinger is a Canadian neuroscientist who some years ago developed what has come to be known as the “God helmet.” Based on the idea that transcendent experiences can be induced by stimulation of the right temporal lobe of the brain, the God helmet produces weak magnetic fields to do just exactly that. According to Persinger, 80 percent of the people who don his helmet have some kind of “religious, spiritual, or mystical” encounter.1

Eighty percent. But not everybody. One of the people who tried out Persinger’s God helmet was the famous British atheist, Richard Dawkins. However, after 40 minutes, Dawkins had sensed nothing unusual—and described himself as “very disappointed.” He had really wanted to experience what religious people say they experience. But … rats … no luck!

Dr. Persinger’s explanation? Well, according to the Sudbury-based neuroscientist, Richard Dawkins simply did not have a sensitive enough brain to be able to respond to the God helmet! According to Persinger, Dawkins was “well below average” when it came to temporal-lobe sensitivity.2

What does that mean? Well, Michael Persinger might not agree, but it seems to me that one thing it could mean is that some of us simply do not have the physiological capacity for Divine perception. In other words, it may be that—when it comes to perceiving the reality of God—Richard Dawkins simply does not have the appropriate mental equipment!

If that is true, then John Calvin was right when he hypothesized predestination … albeit in a way he himself could never have imagined. Richard Dawkins, perhaps, is like a blind man who’s convinced that vision is a myth. No wonder he’s an atheist!

Even so, if 80 percent of us are indeed capable of having the kind of transcendent experience that Dawkins was looking for … why do so very few of us ever actually have one?

I wish I knew the answer to that question, but I don’t. Melvin Morse—an American physician who has written extensively about his own research in the field—was once asked: “How can you stimulate your right temporal lobe?”

Dr. Morse began to respond technically, explaining about how electricity and magnetism could be used, when the questioner interrupted him, saying: “No, I mean how can you do it naturally?”

The doctor shrugged and said the first thing that came into his mind: “I guess that’s what people do when they pray.”3

Maybe it is. Yet, as a longtime pastor, I know that most faithful Christians—people who do, very intentionally and in a disciplined way, spend significant time in prayer daily—still confess that they struggle with doubt. What that tells me is that most of us never encounter God in such a profound way as to make doubt impossible.

But there are people who have these kinds of things happen to them.

Apparently, the late American general Douglas MacArthur had some kind of mystical encounter early in his life that left him convinced that he would not die until God decided that his life should be over. This has been offered as an explanation for MacArthur’s evident fearlessness on the battlefield, and his penchant for placing himself in harm’s way.

He was one of the last commanders to lead from the front lines—a trait which certainly did make his fellow officers doubt his sanity. In fact, Douglas MacArthur did not die in combat, but passed away at 84 years of age in 1964, hailed as a national hero.

John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist tradition, spoke about how he found himself transformed during a Moravian society meeting when someone read Martin Luther’s statement of the change which God works in human beings through faith. Wesley said, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”4

And of course, we all know the abrupt about-face made by Saul of Tarsus—an event described in the Book of Acts. While he was en route to Damascus to persecute the followers of Jesus, the Risen Christ appeared to him in a flash of brilliant light. He was struck blind, but after three days his sight was restored, and Saul of Tarsus became Paul the Apostle, who devoted the rest of his life to proclaiming the gospel.

Examples of this kind abound—and yet, they are remarkable because they are so rare. At least, they seem to be rare. Perhaps many more of us have them than anyone realizes, but we never talk about them because … Well, because we’re afraid our family and friends will think that we are … out of our minds.

Listen: if you are one of those many (the majority, I suspect) who have never had some profound God-experience which has wiped all doubt from your minds, and who yet persist in believing, who choose to believe in spite of your doubts …

I am in awe of you, because you really do have deep and abiding faith. You are the ones of whom Jesus spoke when he said to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

Blessed are you. Rejoice and be glad. Amen. 

_________________________________________________________

* Scripture quotations are from:

  • The Message Copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson.
  • The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
  • Amplified Bible Copyright © 2015 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, CA 90631. All rights reserved.

1 Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), p. 80.

2 Ibid.

3 Melvin Morse, M.D. and Paul Perry, Where God Lives: The Science of the Paranormal and How Our Brains are Linked to the Universe (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), p. 4.

4 Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, entry for May 24, 1738.

“HOW CAN THESE THINGS BE?”

Trinity Sunday

TEXT:  John 3:1-17

“Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:7-10)

 

Poor old Nicodemus! He was a Pharisee, a religious authority, a “teacher of Israel”—and yet, trying to comprehend the divine mystery of rebirth, he was completely baffled.

I can sympathize with Nicodemus. Can’t you?

Just when you think you’ve got reality more or less nailed down … just when you think you finally have a firm grasp of theological principles … God sets you back on your heels.

That kept happening to Jesus’ disciples, too. In fact, it’s still happening to Jesus’ disciples! Each year, the church calendar designates the Sunday after Pentecost as “Trinity Sunday.” It is the only day in the calendar that celebrates a doctrine rather than an event. It is also a Sunday that strikes fear into the hearts of many preachers!

Why? Because we think we’re expected to preach a sermon that is both inspirational and which explains the doctrine of the Trinity. However, as anyone who has ever tried it knows, this is extremely difficult, if not impossible! You might as well ask someone to explain the evolution of fencing wire and make it exciting.

Now, I’m not saying that the doctrine of the Trinity is not inspirational. In fact, given that the root meaning of the word inspire is “to give breath,” it would be fair to say that you only breathe because you are inspired by the Trinity. The trouble is, when you try to explain the Trinity … well, I’ve found that such attempts almost inevitably fall far short of being inspirational. They usually fall far short of succeeding as explanations, too.

Even so, here’s a smidgen of background.

From their origins in Judaism, the earliest Christians retained the conviction that God is one—the One who called everything into being, and continues to sustain his Creation. However, they were also convinced that—in the person of Jesus of Nazareth—they had encountered God “in human flesh.”

More than that, after the risen Jesus had left them and ascended into heaven, they’d had this “Pentecost experience” where God showed up in yet a different way again, blowing through their lives like a hurricane.

How can these things be?

Good question. The concept of the Trinity—of God existing in three Persons—is an attempt to answer that question.

Now, the word Trinity appears nowhere in Scripture. And the New Testament does not explicitly teach a Trinitarian doctrine. However, it does contain several passages that use threefold patterns to speak of God.

One of these is from Jesus’ “Great Commission,” found in Matthew’s gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).

Here’s another one, from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, where the apostle writes: “… you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).

Then there’s the salutation which opens the First Letter of Peter, addressing it: “To the exiles of the Dispersion … who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood …” (1 Peter 1:1-2).

Passages like these provided the material from which later Christians would develop ideas about the Triune nature of the One God.

The doctrine itself does not seem to emerge in any complex formulation until around the fourth century. However, from the first century onward, Christian teachers asserted Christ’s deity and spoke of God as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

In 325 A.D., the Council of Nicaea adopted the Nicene Creed, which described Christ as: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”

That creed used the term  homoousios  (ὁμοούσιος – meaning “of one substance”) to define the relationship between the Father and the Son. After more than 50 years of debate, homoousios was recognized as the hallmark of orthodoxy, and was further developed into the formula of “three persons, one being.”

Yup. It’s complicated. That’s what happens when theologians get hold of an idea. Through the centuries, there have been countless attempts to define the Trinity—sometimes in puzzling detail. But really, any attempt to explain the nature of God … Well, to me, it’s like trying to capture the wind in a jar.

Over the years, humbler—and wiser—Christians have been content to refer to the doctrine of the Trinity as “a beautiful mystery.”

Back in the fourth century, Gregory of Nazianzus put it this way:

“No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Three than I am carried back into the One. When I think of any of the Three, I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations 40.41)

A beautiful mystery. A divine mystery, as the Church has traditionally described it.

Here’s a tip from an old preacher: when the church calls something a mystery, don’t expend too much energy trying to exhaustively explain it. Chances are, nobody else has ever managed to explain it, either!

But you know, Christian faith is not about explanations, it is about experience. Christian faith is about a growing relationship with the living God. And trying to explain that is like trying to explain the experience of falling in love. You can say things about it that are true, but you can never explain it. Not really. In the end, it remains a mystery.

To push that analogy a bit further, imagine trying to write down a set of instructions for falling in love. Could you do it? Could you provide a set of step-by-step instructions, so that—if someone followed them—he or she would actually fall in love?

It’s a ridiculous idea, isn’t it? And yet, the fact that you cannot explain the experience or write a manual for it does not prevent you from falling in love. The experience comes whether you can comprehend it or not. It can come even if you do not believe in it. It’s the same with the doctrine of the Trinity. Before there was ever a doctrine of the Trinity, there was an experience of the Trinity.

The early church experienced God in certain ways, and—as they attempted to describe their experience—the idea of the Trinity emerged. They began with their experience of the living God. The theology came second. It still has to work that way, I think. Theology cannot create experience.

Even so, I don’t want you to think that theology is unimportant. Without theology, we would have no common language to describe our experience of God. Bearing that in mind, I want to tell you that I see two reasons why the doctrine of the Trinity is vital.

The first reason is that, when our experiences of God are so diverse, it is important to decide whether or not we are still talking about one God. As someone has said, the doctrine of the Trinity is an assertion that—despite appearances to the contrary—there is only one God. The mystery of the mighty God of the cosmos, the mystery of the vulnerable God who walked among us, and the mystery of the God nudging and whispering within us … These are all the same mystery—the same God. This ought to tell us that God will always be bigger, more diverse and more surprising than we can wrap our heads around.

The second reason the Trinity is important as an explanation for our experience of God is that it tells us that God is by nature relational. The perfect love relationship is not just a theoretical possibility, it is actually taking place constantly within God. God is not desperately combing the universe in a futile search for someone who can reciprocate the love that he longs to express. God exists as a love relationship. God exists as a community: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

God exists in community. And perhaps it’s this idea of community that is most relevant—and most accessible—to us today. I mean, the idea that separate persons can be at the same time one person is implicit in the apostle Paul’s analogy about the church being “the Body of Christ.”

Like in that favourite quote from First Corinthians, chapter 12: “… just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:12-13).

Right? “There are many parts, but one body” (1 Cor. 12:20).

“If one member suffers, all suffer together [and] if one member is honoured, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).

I think community is something we understand pretty well within the community of faith. Most of the time, anyway. Oh sure, we’ll have our squabbles—sometimes about the dumbest things. But for the most part, we’re pretty good at this business of living in community. Maybe not with the perfect harmony displayed in the Trinity—but not bad, for human beings.

Perfection may be something we expect of one another, sometimes. But it’s not something God expects of us, ever. He knows us too well for that.

Community. Comm-union. Unity with one another. At our best, we Christians naturally demonstrate that quality.

When one of us is in trouble, the rest of us pitch in and help.

When one of us is in sorrow, there’s no reason to grieve in solitude.

And when one of us has reason to celebrate, the rest of us throw a party! Even when we quarrel, we remain united by our love.

Why? Well, most of us would likely say it’s because we’re a family. And that is part of the answer.

But I think for us believers, it goes much deeper than that. It pertains to a sort of connection—a connected-ness—that runs so deep in us that it really does approach some kind of mystical union.

Know what I mean?

That’s what is symbolized and expressed in the Sacrament of the Table, which we variously refer to as Holy Communion, the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. If you’ve paid attention to the wording of the liturgy, you’ll have noticed there’s almost always some kind of phraseology like: “send your Spirit upon these fruits of field and vine, and upon your people here assembled” and … “Let them be for us the body and blood of Christ Jesus our Lord, that we might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”

Through the power of the Spirit, Christ is present in his people—in we who come to the table. That’s where the “Real Presence” of Christ is—it’s in the people who come to the Table. We eat and drink together as a symbol of our oneness in Christ.

This is not a closed relationship. That was made clear through the life of Jesus. It’s what we saw when—without any fracturing of the Divine—God became human, walked amongst us, and invited us into his community of love.

What does all that mean? Well, it means you don’t have to measure up to some high standard of love before you can approach your heavenly Father. It means you don’t have to earn your way—by your loving—into the experience of God’s love. You just have to respond to the Son’s invitation. Then the Spirit will draw you into the experience of God’s love—and you will be transformed by it.

Every other necessary thing will naturally follow. Thanks be to God.

THE GIFT OF PENTECOST

The Day of Pentecost

TEXT: Acts 2:1-21

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:2-4)

 

Do you know what a chocolate stirring stick is?

It’s a cube of milk chocolate on the end of a short stick. I think it comes from Starbuck’s, or someplace like that. Once, I was gifted with one, as a stocking-stuffer at Christmastime.

I love chocolate. So, on Christmas morning, when we were all gathered round the tree, unpacking our stuff, I pulled this thing out of my stocking with tremendous appreciation. Then—immediately—I unwrapped it and took a bite out of it. I thought it was a chocolate lollipop. But everyone else in the room burst out laughing. See, this is supposed to be for making a hot drink. You’re supposed to swizzle it through a mug of hot liquid until the chocolate dissolves …

How was I supposed to know that? But I’m still getting teased about it, years later!

Have you ever had a similar experience? Have you ever unwrapped a gift, only to discover you don’t have the foggiest idea what it is—or what it’s for? You open the box and there it is … But is it a pencil sharpener or a coffee grinder? A tire-pressure gauge or a meat thermometer? Earrings or fishing lures?

There is something of the same uncertainty and confusion about Pentecost—but in a much deeper sense. You surely know the familiar story from chapter two of the Book of Acts. The leaders of the early church were all gathered in one place, when—suddenly—there was the sound of rushing wind. Then tongues of fire appeared on every disciple’s head, and each one of them began proclaiming the gospel in other languages. Here, at Pentecost—in dramatic fashion—something amazing has been given to the church, a gift from God.

And the gift is still being given. But when we open it up, what exactly is this gift? What is it for?

The gift, of course, is the Holy Spirit. To be a part of the church is to say, “We have received the gift of the Holy Spirit.” But when you take the wrapping paper off and lift it out of the box, what exactly is this gift of the Holy Spirit? What is it for? And what does it look like, for us?

Well, it may not look exactly like the description in the Book of Acts. As Luke reports it, it’s a remarkable story, isn’t it? You can’t help but be fascinated by it: the power of the wind blowing like a hurricane through the congregation; tongues of fire scorching the disciples’ hair …

Some people hear this account, and they say, “Oh, I know what the gift is! The gift of Pentecost is the gift of energy and excitement in the church.” Pentecost is God’s way of shaking the dust off a staid institution, blowing the cobwebs out of the sanctuary, and pumping a high-voltage burst into the Body.

Well, if that’s the gift, God knows we need it! Some energy and excitement in the church! I think that would be a great thing.

I have to confess something here. When I’m not behind a pulpit, where there’s enough nervous energy happening to keep me standing upright, most worship services bore me to sleep. Especially the sermon part! To those of you who find yourselves nodding off on Sunday mornings, I say this: brothers and sisters, I know how you feel!

Even the most gifted speaker usually cannot keep me interested for more than about 10 minutes. After that, I’m fidgeting and squirming in my seat, pinching myself and trying not to snore! And I know I’m not alone in that.

Yes, indeed. If what we get as a gift at Pentecost is energy and excitement, God knows we need it! Too many of us, I think, experience church life as just being heavy and dreary. If we’re not talking about the stewardship program and how to balance the budget, we’re twisting people’s arms to volunteer for some kind of job. And when we aren’t struggling with that stuff, we’re trying to face staggering problems in the world—things like: war, racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, human trafficking, environmental crisis … the list goes on and on, and it begins to weigh us down.

Wouldn’t you like to be lifted up? Wouldn’t it be great to see the life of the church flying like a flag in the powerful wind of the Spirit, full of energy and excitement? Maybe that is the gift of Pentecost!

But wait a minute. Those of you who’ve read the Book of Acts—or who are reading it—have you ever noticed where this story about Pentecost is positioned? It’s sandwiched in between two other stories. On one side is the story of the selection of an apostle to replace Judas. And on the other side is a story about the early church breaking bread, listening to the teachings of the apostles, and trying to take care of the poor in their community.

In other words, the story of Pentecost is positioned between some pretty mundane stuff: right between the election of officers and a description of program development—programs of Christian education, worship, and service. Right between institution and mission.

First of all, at the end of chapter one of Acts (1:23-26), we read that Matthias was chosen to join the 11 remaining disciples; it’s like there was an election to fill a vacant position on the church board! Then, right at the beginning of chapter two, we plunge into this amazing, dramatic, high-energy story of Pentecostal ecstasy, culminating in some 3,000 people joining the church.

And then? Well, then—right at the end of chapter two—ordinary, everyday church life resumes: listening to sermons, praying, breaking bread. There’s still the occasional burst of energy—some miracles, some wonders—but mostly, it’s life as usual, after the Christian model: sharing, fellowship, caring for those in need. Stocking the Food Bank shelves. Sitting in committee meetings. Washing dishes. Making coffee. Visiting the sick, the lonely, the forgotten.

Whatever it is that we’re given at Pentecost, it does not lift us out and up over these earthbound realities. It drives us more deeply in.

Some have suggested that maybe the gift we receive at Pentecost is the gift of power. After all, Jesus did say to the disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8a). And if it’s power we receive on this day, then God knows we need that, too!

It used to be that the church had a certain kind of clout in the world, when it was viewed with respect and prestige. But gradually, it has been pushed to the sidelines. As one grandparent said, “There was a time when nobody would dream of having soccer practice on Sunday mornings. But that’s just normal, today.”

I remember hearing that, many years ago, it was not uncommon for the Canadian Prime Minister to call on the Moderator of the United Church to ask for his advice. It’s hard to imagine that happening today.

So maybe, just maybe, the gift we get at Pentecost is the gift of power—and God knows, we need it! But wait a minute. Pentecost may give us power, but it’s not ordinary power, not clout like the world’s power.

If there is power at Pentecost, it’s more like the power of Jesus—because it looks like weakness and vulnerability.

Getting back to our reading from the Book of Acts, did you notice what the people of this world did when the church displayed its Pentecostal gift? They poked each other in the ribs and said, “I don’t know about you, but to me, they look like they’re drunk!” That’s a strange kind of power!

When all is said and done, the gift that we get at Pentecost is not simply an adrenaline rush. It’s not the superficial gift of energy and excitement. And it’s not the kind of power that the world regards as power. No. The gift we get at Pentecost is the one gift we most desperately need. It’s the gift the world most desperately needs—whether the world knows it, or not.

Strangely enough, the gift of Pentecost is the gift of speech. It’s the gift of something to say. It’s the gift of a word—a Word to speak in the midst of this world’s brokenness and tragedy and sorrow. And it is unlike any other word.

Did you notice what happened to the church when the Spirit was given? It stood up and it spoke. It moved from silence to sound. The church spoke—and the whole world heard the good news in its own languages. As Luke quoted the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy …” (Acts 2:17a).

Your sons and your daughters will have a Word to speak—a Word proclaiming that life is stronger than death, that hope is deeper than despair, that every tear will be wiped away, and that—through the power of Christ’s resurrection—death and pain will be no more. That Word is our gift to speak to the world.

How many of you have heard of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross? She was a Swiss-born psychiatrist who conducted extensive research on dying patients, and wrote a well-known book called On Death and Dying. It was a ground-breaking work, and it truly revolutionized the way health care professionals dealt with end-of-life issues.

Anyway, while Dr. Kübler-Ross was doing her research, she went from room to room in the hospital, interviewing people who knew their deaths were fast approaching. She wanted to understand what terminal patients were experiencing—what their mood was like, what they were feeling inside.

She discovered that some of the patients she visited were considerably more at peace than others. Specifically, she noticed that these patients were more tranquil after one particular maid had cleaned their room.

One day she approached the maid and asked, “What are you doing with my patients?”

The maid, thinking she was being reprimanded, replied, “I’m not doing anything with your patients.”

Dr. Kübler-Ross assured the maid that she was not being scolded; in fact, it was just the opposite. Whatever the maid was doing seemed to be helping the patients come to terms with their mortality. The doctor wanted to grasp the source of this comfort.

And here’s what the maid told Dr. Kübler-Ross. She said, “I’ve had two babies die on my lap. It hurt so deep I could hardly stand it. But even in the midst of my pain, God did not leave me. You know, God lost a Son, too. And God gave me strength. That’s what I tell them. God will give you strength.” *

There, my friends, is the gift of Pentecost: a Word to speak to the world’s deepest pain—a Word of good news and hope that is unlike any other word. So, I guess the question for us is: do we have a Word like that to speak—a Word that our neighbours are longing to hear?

I hope we do. I think we must believe that we do.

We are children of God. We are branches of the True Vine. Together, we are the Body of Christ. We are members of Jesus’ crew—and if we’re willing to set sail, the wind of the Spirit will propel us onward. We will be Jesus’ witnesses in the days and years ahead—not just “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria,” but in whatever locality we find ourselves, and in the lives of our friends and neighbours, and even “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8b).

That’s why power has been given to us. Let’s not hesitate to use it.

______________

*From “Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It” by Gregory Knox Jones (quoted at http://www.foresthillspres.com/resources/VIEW%203-15-12.pdf)

 

PLANTED BY THE STREAM

Seventh Sunday of Easter

TEXTS: Psalm 1 and John 17:9-19

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. (Psalm 1:1-3)

Some of you know that I am an alumnus of United Theological College in Montréal. This was where Lay Pastoral Ministers (as we were called then) received their training. Now, United Theological College—UTC, as it’s commonly known—is part of the McGill University campus, but it doesn’t really have its own building. It has some offices in an old house, but it doesn’t have its own classroom space. So we lay ministers—who came to UTC each summer—received instruction at Presbyterian College, and were housed in its dormitory.

If you know Montréal, you know about its maple trees. They are everywhere—big, and impressive, and lovely. They also spread their seeds everywhere—so much so that some Montrealers look at them almost as a kind of weed. Maple saplings sprout in all kinds of places—in parks and on boulevards, in private yards and gardens, even between cracks in the sidewalk. I, however, loved them.

One of the places saplings sprung up—but were not welcome—was underneath the steps to Presbyterian College. The Presbyterians were always digging them out, and trying to get rid of them—so I knew no one would mind if I dug one up for myself. So the first year I was at UTC, that’s what I did. Just before I left to go home, I found a healthy-looking maple sprout, which I removed from beneath the college steps and put into a pop bottle filled with water. That’s how I brought it home to Calgary—in a bottle, clutched firmly in my grip as I sat on the Air Canada flight (this was a very long time ago).

Once I got home, I put the little tree into a flower pot, and it lived indoors as a potted plant—first in Calgary, and then later in our home in Kamloops after we moved there. Then, when spring came, I transplanted it into our yard. It was still tiny—less than a foot tall, after having been an indoor plant for about one year. I did not know how it would fare in the climate of the B.C. interior—but I also knew it had not exactly thrived in its little pot.

However, it did thrive in the yard! By the end of that first summer, it was over two feet tall—twice as big as it had been. Winter came, and the tree of course lost its leaves and became dormant. Would it survive the winter outdoors? It did—and almost doubled its height by the time autumn arrived again. To make a long story short, by the time we left Kamloops some five years later, the tree was much taller than I was, and continued in robust health.

I was surprised at first, to see the little tree doing that well in a place so far from where it had originally sprouted—doing better, actually, than any of the other trees in the yard. But soon I learned the secret. Our yard was on a hillside, and running beneath the surface of the hillside were many underground streams. Often people found out about these when they began digging for one reason or another.

Anyway, one of these streams ran beneath our yard, right where I had happened to plant the little tree. Once its roots found their way deep enough into the soil, the tree was able to tap into this abundant—and everlasting—supply of water. That’s why the maple tree did so well. It was a much better deal than being under the college steps in Montréal!

My friends, Scripture tells us that we who believe are like that little tree. We are like trees planted by streams of water. What a folly it is—and what a tragedy—if we do not put down our roots and freely drink!

In this driest of the prairie provinces, we Albertans should know how special water is. When I was much younger, and fancied myself a journalist, I worked for a weekly newspaper in the town of Oyen, in east-central Alberta. If you know that area, you know it is an exceptionally dry region. Yet—because of an engineering marvel called irrigation—that arid part of the province has become farmland. I wouldn’t call it the Garden of Eden, but it surely is not a desert, either. Irrigation projects have made that area—called the Palliser Triangle—green and productive. And so the Palliser Triangle has become a testament to the transformation that happens when available water is utilized.

Many of us have been fortunate to have been planted by loving parents near the living water of God’s grace. Others of you have ended up in a faith-family by what appeared to be chance. Perhaps you married a church-goer, and more or less willingly picked up the habit. Perhaps some crisis steered you toward religion, and a particular congregation was the place where you stuck. You are like seeds blown on the wind, or carried by birds, or maybe caught up in an animal’s hoof and brought to the water when the creature came down to drink. It doesn’t matter, really. Regardless of how we arrived here, all of us are in a place of growth. All of us are exceptionally privileged! All of us have a blessing that exceeds all other earthly joys. We are free to delight in it!

How do we know whether we truly treasure our privilege and feed our roots on the living water? How might we deduce whether we have become blasé and ceased drawing on the water of life? Jesus answered that for us: “You will know them by their fruits,” he said (Matthew 7:20). A fruitless Christian is a dying Christian.

Now, don’t misunderstand: I don’t want to instigate a round of spiritual self-derogation amongst you. I’m not saying we are all capable of producing the same fruits, or even the same high-quality fruits. Our gifts vary. Our opportunities vary. Some may produce sweet navel oranges in plenty, while others produce tiny currants. Some may produce juicy mangoes on a lush tree, while others produce small but tasty raspberries from a rather prickly stalk. Some may bring forth large bunches of golden bananas while others ripen their tangy lemons. We are many trees, and we produce many fruits.

As a longtime pastor, I know that among those who produce exceptionally fine fruits are those over-anxious souls who feel guilty because they are not producing even better ones. Some of you (not all, but some) think too little of yourselves. I would have you delivered from that. We need to be grateful for what we do achieve, not always berating ourselves for the fruits we do not have. Thanksgiving for the good things makes for a healthy Christian tree. Look at the fruits you do bear, and delight in them. God does. So should you.

Does this lead to complacency? I doubt it; certainly not in the over-sensitive folk that I have in mind as I say this. Let’s face it: smug, complacent people won’t even have these anxieties. Therefore, I say to you over-conscientious souls: cherish each fruit, small or large. Give God the glory—and give yourself a break!

Now, I have to admit, at one point the metaphor of trees and their different fruits completely breaks down—because, in the Christian orchard, there is one common fruit which all the different trees can bear. It is a fruit that unites us, that makes us one. Jesus spelled it out for us with absolute clarity: it’s love. Remember? He said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

John the Evangelist put it this way: Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments” (1 John 5:1-2).

One of the ways this love presents itself is in open-hearted fellowship, where we seek to affirm the best in one another and forgive the deficiencies. Love is the one common fruit—the fruit we should all be expecting to bear. In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus is recorded as praying that his followers may get on well together and resist the temptations of worldly corruption. His joy is that they will stay together in love. This will also be their joy.

Jesus was insightful. He knew that the pressures of the world around the disciples—and the flaws within their personal characters—could easily breed conflicts and division. He prayed that they might be one, just as he and God are one. In retrospect—and to our embarrassment—his prayer anticipates the division of the church into separate denominations. Friends, division is not a fruit of the Spirit—love is. And this remarkable love-fruit will only grow and ripen when our roots drink deeply from the living waters of the Spirit of God.

If we would sincerely pray for the greater unity of the church of Christ, I think we first need to check where our own roots are spreading at the moment. There are plenty of pollutants in the soil around us, and there are alternative, contaminated water supplies that will distort both foliage and fruit. If the tree is not bearing the fruit of love, something is drastically wrong.

Where there is division in the church, we should not look to blame others; rather, we should examine what is happening to our own roots. If our roots drink from the pure stream of God, we will indeed love other Christians—both within our own church and in other denominations. The stream of God is pure love, and the trees planted beside it and nourished by it will be known by their fruits. It is God’s will—and Christ’s joy—that we bear the fruit of love.

“I speak these things in the world,” he said, “so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves” (John 17:13b). What Jesus said—what Jesus taught—had this goal: to bring complete joy to his disciples; to you and me, to our sisters and brothers everywhere, and—most importantly—to all of us together.

This joy and this unity is available to us—if only we point our roots in the right direction. Therefore, sisters and brothers, I urge you to remember the Source of your spiritual nourishment. Our Source is Christ, and the living water he provides. May we all drink deeply from that sacred stream. Amen.

 

WHAT’S YOUR “STILL POINT”?

Sixth Sunday of Easter

TEXT: 1 John 5:1-6

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. (1 John 5:1-2)

Not long ago, I received an e-mail from someone I did not know. Ever get those? I have a pretty effective spam filter, but some stuff still gets through.

Anyway, this guy was obviously sending his e-mail out to a long list of people. And basically, his message was that I should go to a website he listed and read the essay posted there about same-sex marriage. At one point in his e-mail, he wrote the following: “Remember, the issue of same-sex marriage is not just a political issue. It is very much a religious one. It drives straight to the heart of our Christian beliefs. I am going to do everything possible to tell believers about this essay and I ask for your help also.”

Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to blog about same-sex marriage on Christian Family Sunday! No. Instead, I want to focus on a sentence in the Epistle reading for today, from the First Letter of John, chapter five—specifically, verses four and five, where it says: “whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

The author of First John is doing something very important here. He is affirming that the thing which has the ability to win victory over evil is faith. And he isn’t just talking about some generic faith in the goodness of humanity or the inevitability of social progress. He means the kind of faith that is centered in the person of Jesus Christ.

Why is this so important? Because—and I think I’m correct in saying this is true for most of us—we very easily permit the wrong kinds of things to hijack our lives. We allow things of secondary importance to assume roles of primary importance in our lives. And then we throw most of our time and emotions and energy at those things.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the young sailor on a small ship that was crossing the ocean. The captain asked him to take the helm while he took a brief nap. It was in the middle of the night, and the stars were shining brightly.

“All you need to do,” explained the captain, “is follow the North Star,” which he carefully pointed out to the young man. “Do you think you can do that?”

“Yes, sir!” said the sailor. “You can count on me.” And he put his hands on the wheel and the captain disappeared below.

Several hours later the captain woke up from his nap and returned to the helm. Glancing at the sky, he knew immediately that something was wrong. “Hey, sailor!” the captain said. “What are you doing? Why aren’t we headed toward the North Star?”

“Oh,” the sailor said. “We passed that an hour ago!”

The captain knew that the only reliable point in the midst of the wind and the waves was the Polar Star, the North Star. That was the only steady point on the dark and confusing ocean. To stray from that star was to stray off course.

Have you ever known a new Christian? I hope you have, because we’re all supposed to be leading people to Christ. In any event, have you ever noticed what it is that excites someone who’s new to the Christian faith? What thrills them and mystifies them? What inspires and challenges them?

Well, I’ll tell you this: it’s not our doctrines, or our traditions, or the deep intellectual problems some of us like to argue about. No. What grabs the attention of new Christians is Jesus.

For me, it’s very easy to get caught up in all sorts of debates about life and church and theology. I find all that stuff quite stimulating. It has a way of consuming me and making me think I’m doing something important. However, I have also noticed that when I focus on Jesus, interest turns to awe and stimulation is replaced by inspiration.

T.S. Eliot … You all know about him, right? He was a 20th-century poet they made us study in high school. T.S. Eliot wrote about the search for “the still point of the turning world.”1  The Bible tells us that God is that “still point.” The Old Testament—from the beginning to the end—affirms that there can be no other centre of our lives than the Lord. And the entire New Testament bears witness to the fact that, in Jesus Christ, God shows us his face and provides us with a way to know him.

Without Jesus, there would be no Christian faith. Without Jesus, we would have no centre—we would have no peace. Without Jesus, we would still be trying to find some way to appease an unpredictable, punitive God with sacrifices and laws and rituals.

Friends, it is absolutely critical for us to focus on our common commitment to God as known in Jesus the Christ. That’s not to say that the Lord doesn’t call us to grapple with issues like sexual orientation, racism, abortion, economic justice, war and peace. Certainly those are important issues; but they are secondary issues. The primary issue for us—the most important thing for us—is Jesus. We need to keep our eyes focused on him.

If we are to usher in the Kingdom of God, then we as Christians must debate the best way to do it, but we must also keep our eyes focused on Jesus. We must put our shoulders to the wheel and work for peace at home, at school, at work, at play, but we must keep our eyes on Jesus. We must struggle against racism and greed and immorality as we understand them, but we must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.

The writer of a commentary on First John wrote this: “If Christ occupies the center at which faith comes into focus, then other things, however important, do not.”2

Here’s a story about Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Mother Teresa was speaking to a group of people who had come from around the world to see her and learn about her work. When she opened the forum for questions, one woman asked, “How is it that your religious order is gaining members by the thousands and most of our orders are losing members?”

Without hesitating, Mother Teresa answered, “I give them Jesus.”


“Yes, I know,” pursued the woman. “But take habits, for example. Do your women object to wearing habits? And how do you set up the rules of your order?”

“I give them Jesus,” Mother Teresa replied.


“Yes, I know, Mother, but can you be more specific?”

“I give them Jesus,” she repeated.

The questioner went on: “Mother, we are so very much aware of your fine work. But I want to know about something else …”

Quietly, Mother Teresa said, “I give them Jesus. There is nothing else.”

Mother Teresa was able to stay focused on her ministry to the poor—and was able to inspire others to do the same—because, while she was not afraid to speak out on matters of policy and root causes, she had a centre. She had a “still point”—and it was Jesus.

So, here’s a question for you: What is the “still point” around which everything else in your life revolves? Is it your anger about injustice? Or the environment? Is it your concern for the youth of today … or for the adults? Is it your upward mobility? The stock market? Your health?


“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”(Matt. 6:21). That’s what Jesus told us. And if your heart is set on anything—anything—that can die or rust or be taken away, then you really have founded your life on shifting sand.

The God revealed in Jesus is the only foundation that cannot be shaken. The God whom we know in Jesus is the only one who will never falter or fail us. In other words, Jesus is our North Star. Jesus is our still point. Jesus is what God has given us. There is nothing else. Thanks be to God, he is more than enough! Amen.

____________


“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; 
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
 But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
 Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, 
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
 There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”—Quote from “Burnt Norton,” one of Eliot’s “Four Quartets” (view online at: http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html)

2 The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), p. 437.

FRUITFUL BRANCHES

Fifth Sunday of Easter

TEXT: JOHN 15:1-8

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

 

The people of ancient Israel knew a thing or two about grapevines. They knew that, for two months of the year, the vines needed careful attention. After blossoms developed, the farmer—the “vinedresser”—would hoe the ground, cut off non-bearing branches, and prune the vines. As the grapes matured, he built watchtowers and lived among the vines to protect the grapes from thirsty animals and hungry birds.

If we lived in ancient Israel, we would have grown up with the words of the prophets, who spoke of Israel as the vine and God as the vinedresser. We would remember times when the nation’s life had been like a good crop … or like a bad one. In our minds, questions would loom—questions such as:

  • God faithfully tended, but did we respond?
  • What if God stopped tending us?
  • What if God did not guard us, did not prune us?

What would prevent these vines from becoming brambles? What would protect them from disease, or keep them from drying up before the harvest? We would have sung, “O Israel, hope in the Lord, from this time on and forevermore” (Psalm 131:3).

If I had lived in ancient Israel, I wouldn’t have had to go online to read up on viticulture before I wrote this blog! But I did. Here’s some of what I learned:

  • There is virtually no plant more amenable to training than the grapevine. In general, you let a new plant grow freely for a year. The next year, you cut off all but one cane.
  • You trim that one back to just two or three buds, and pinch back any growth too low to the ground. You stake it, let it grow a foot taller, then pinch it back. The year after that, you let two branches grow on each side and cut the others back.
  • If there are too many buds on any one branch, remove some of them; the fruit will be too small if the nourishment is spread too thin. Each winter, you cut back the fruited canes to make room for new ones. And here’s the kicker: almost all of these steps must be repeated annually!

To a non-gardener like me, this sounds like way too much work! But I don’t think you can grow grapes where I live, anyhow.

Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower … I am the vine, you are the branches.” There is a clear difference between the one who plants and the plant itself. But where is the boundary between the vine and its branches?

Certainly, the vine consists of the roots and the trunk. But the vine isn’t just these parts. The vine is the whole thing—branches, trunk, and roots. When you see a vine, you really only see the branches—and in late summer, you see mostly leaves and fruit.

“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus says. “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” But—considering that, without branches, the vine would only be a trunk—Jesus might also have said: “Without you, I can’t do anything, either!”

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is speaking to his disciples, saying: “Abide in me. Stay with me. Stay connected to me. If you don’t, you’ll just wither up.”

Speaking to those already in the Church, he says: “You have been pruned, trained, given every advantage. Unless you produce, this vine will have no fruit.”

Just as the branches need the vine, the vine needs the branches to do what a vine is meant to do—which is to bear fruit.

We are the branches. We are the Church, planted in the world to make Christ known. Together, we make up what is visible and effective about Christ in the world.

So, how shall we be branches? Will we allow ourselves to be shaped, trained, sometimes pruned, sometimes stretched into a new position? Our willingness makes all the difference. What we do—or don’t do—makes our branch of the vine either fruitful or barren.

But you know, a mature vine doesn’t have just one or two good branches; it has many—and you can hardly tell one from another. Just like in a choir—where you don’t want one or two voices to stand out—the key to success is in the blend. So, in the Church, we are all meant to be fruitful branches.

What fruit are we called to bear? Well, Scripture tells us that the vine of Christ produces many varieties upon its branches. Remember? I’m sure many of you learned about this in Sunday School, at one point …

Galatians, chapter five, verses 22-23: “… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Remember? Sure you do!

That kind of fruit feeds those who are hungry, puts cans on Food Bank shelves, makes sandwiches for the homeless. It takes care of the sick, and visits those who are lonely or in prison. It gives us will power and compassionate understanding so we can resist the temptation to harshly judge another person. That kind of fruit sweetens this often-bitter world, and makes it more and more like God’s vineyard.

But another variety of fruit touches on what we do every Lord’s Day—whether in person or online—through our music, and our art, and our meditation upon God’s Word. In worship, the careful tending and energy of the music program bears fruit that is nourishing and rich. Liturgical colours remind us of our journey—our pilgrimage—through the church year. Instruction in the Sunday School—and from the pulpit—helps us recall what purpose this vine is supposed to have.

In worship, we allow ourselves to be shaped (and maybe even pruned) for our work of bearing fruit. Worship feeds us and sends us out, but worship is also part of the fruit.

And whenever we can gather around the Lord’s table, it seems to me that the imagery of vine and branches is especially meaningful. At this table, as we share food and drink—and as we remember Jesus, and celebrate our unity in him—we come together as the Body of Christ.

If you’ve ever heard me teach about the Sacrament of Holy Communion, you’ve probably heard me repeat the words of an insightful 14-year-old theologian from Kamloops, who said: “It doesn’t matter so much how Christ is present in the elements on the table. What’s important is that God’s people are there. That’s where the ‘real presence’ of Christ is—it’s in the people who come to the table.”

She really did understand—maybe even better than I did, at the time—what the Sacrament is all about. To be sure, it’s about painting a vivid picture of the unity we have with one another, and with all Christians everywhere, because we are united with Christ. But it goes further than that. It becomes a literal embodiment of that unity.

The New Testament is full of metaphors about this. Writing to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul used the human body as an analogy, saying: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). Elsewhere, he used the figure of a house “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” in whom “the whole structure is joined together” (Ephesians 2:20-21).

In today’s gospel, Jesus himself gives us the symbol of vine and branches. As Paul also told the Corinthians, we share in Christ’s body and blood.* We are one with him not only when we partake of the Sacrament, but also in and through our daily living. And through Jesus we are connected to one another. Like branches grafted onto the same trunk, we share a common life-force, and draw nourishment from a common vine. That is why—and that is the only reason why—we are able to bear fruit.

So, today, let’s meditate not only upon our unity in Christ, but also upon the fruit we should be producing for him. Here’s the same pop-quiz again, church: What are the fruits of the Spirit?

“Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” To bear more of that fruit in our lives—that should be our deepest, heartfelt desire. To bear more of that fruit in our lives—that’s what we should be working toward, individually and together.

To bear more of that fruit in our lives … we need to make sure we stay connected to that True Vine which is Jesus Christ our Lord. May it be so for each one of you. May it be so for me. May it be so for all of us together. May it be so today, and tomorrow, and always.

____________________________________

* 1 Cor. 10:16—“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?”

 

 

“I LAY DOWN MY LIFE FOR THE SHEEP”

Fourth Sunday of Easter

TEXT: John 10:1-18

The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. (John 10:2-3)

 

In this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus is answering a challenge from a group of Pharisees who have criticized him for healing on the Sabbath (by applying mud to a blind man’s eyes; the story begins back in chapter nine). He’s also speaking for the benefit of those who have been following him, and he’s trying to explain how much he loves them and what he’s willing to go through in order to rescue them.

He looks at this group of townspeople, religious leaders, and disciples, and he says: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

That’s a familiar and much-loved image, isn’t it? Of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. I’m sure we’ve all seen paintings like that, which portray a gentle Jesus kindly leading his sheep through the valley, with a lamb draped lovingly over his shoulders.

Trouble is—in our modern, urban culture—we don’t appreciate the imagery that Jesus is using. Because the meaning of the “Good Shepherd” goes much deeper than him cradling a tiny lamb and looking peaceful. Sometimes the shepherd has to stand and fight.

King David, you may recall, was once a shepherd himself. In the First Book of Samuel, chapter 17, we read this:

… David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears …” (1 Samuel 17:34-36)

Yeah. Sheep might be timid, but their predators are not. Tending the flock is no job for the faint of heart. As Jesus said:

“The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:12-15).

What Jesus means is that he is willing to live life with us—to not only guide us, but to take personal care of us; to give us a life that is rich and full of blessing because he is part of it. He is also offering us security and protection, asking us to trust in him and allow him to watch over us and provide for us.

Jesus is saying that he is committed to us, that—as a shepherd owns the sheep and is therefore invested in their well-being—Jesus is invested in who we are and how we live. Jesus is not merely doing a job; he is prepared to give up everything for us, so that we can live more abundant lives.

He will rescue us. He will save us. He will risk himself for us. And he does it all because of his great love for us. He wants to save us, not condemn us. If we are the sheep of his fold, he will be our Good Shepherd, and he will lead us to green pastures. So, that’s the first point I want to make this morning: Jesus loves us.

Now, those of you who’ve been reading my blog posts for a while probably realize that my messages usually have only one point! But today I have a second point, and it’s just this: even sheep must eventually grow used to the paths on which their shepherd leads them, and the destinations to which he leads them. Even sheep must come to recognize the familiar scenery.

Sheep are prone to wander off, apparently, and—according to most accounts—sheep, unfortunately, are not all that bright. However, there is some good news. Even if they aren’t very smart, sheep are at least not deaf! Especially if they’ve been with the same shepherd for a length of time, they come to recognize his voice. Once they come to trust their shepherd, they won’t respond to the call of a stranger. Sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd, and this helps keep them on the right track.

Now, here’s something else I suspect is true of sheep: just as they come to recognize the voice of their shepherd, I’m sure they must also come to recognize the usual paths upon which they follow him.

If they were being called by a stranger to follow him, they would notice it. If they were being led down a different path, wouldn’t they notice that, also? And if, from ahead of them, they caught scent of brimstone and sulphur … even the sheep might balk! If they’re sheep of the Good Shepherd, that is.

Here’s the thing: if Jesus is our Good Shepherd, we not only know his voice—we also know his path. But you might ask, “How do we know that Jesus is our Shepherd?” How can you be certain that you are a sheep of Jesus’ fold?

Well, one way is by faith—and by believing what the Scriptures say about this. But another way, I think, is to look at the scenery around you. If you’re following Jesus, you’ve been purchased by a new Shepherd. He’s leading you to a new pasture. And so, you’ll notice that the path you’re on looks very different from the paths you followed before. In other words, ask yourself: “Do I see a change taking place in my life?”

When you veer off the Shepherd’s path (notice I said “when you veer off”, not “if”; we are sheep and we’re prone to wander) … when you stray from Jesus’ path—even onto an old, familiar highway—does it seem, somehow, uncomfortable for you?

The thing about our Good Shepherd is: he not only calls us with a familiar voice, he also effects a change in us, if we are his sheep. One day, we notice that our sins … bother us! And then we realize that they didn’t used to. One day we realize that we actually notice it when we wander away. And then it dawns on us that walking the Good Shepherd’s path is getting easier.

Oh, it may not be easy, in the sense of being effortless. But we notice that it isn’t as difficult, or inconvenient—or boring—as once we thought. And we find that, whatever challenges may present themselves upon the Shepherd’s way, this road is still more agreeable to us, more natural to us—and happier—than any other way.

I think that’s one of the ways you can know you’re a sheep of Jesus’ fold. It’s not about perfection—it’s about feeling anxious when you stray from his path. It’s not about fearing the wrath of God if you mess up—it’s about loving God so much that you don’t want to grieve his Spirit.

Love is the great motivator. It is because of love that God views us as worth redeeming, and sent his Son to do just that. Because of love, Jesus enters fully into our human condition—providing for our needs, healing our hurts, and piercing our shells of isolation.

It is because of love that Jesus lived his life among the poor, the outcast, the needy, the hurting, the desperate, the lonely.

It is because of love that Jesus chose the cross, condemning himself to death to pay for our sins, to atone for our fallen state, to heal our fractured existence.

It is because of love that Jesus staged the “great rescue”—the process of bringing all of Creation into right standing with God.

Jesus came to rescue us from sin and separation, from the brokenness of our world, from the brokenness of our very own lives.

Many years ago now—way back when I was a ministry student in Montréal—I was given an essay to read and study. The essay is called We Would See Jesus, and it was written by Douglas John Hall, who was Professor of Christian Theology at McGill University. I’d like to quote just a paragraph for you, now. Here’s what he says:

Love doesn’t just accept everything. If it’s love, it cares about the real condition of the beloved … “Jesus loves me” does not mean that Jesus likes me, accepts me, and makes no great demands upon me. Jesus loves me—therefore I had better be prepared for some embarrassing moment of truth and some hard work! And Jesus, we say, is God’s eternal pledge of love for the world (John 3:16). The Jesus who is not ready to accept me just as I am is not ready either to accept the world, our world, just as it is. If we can trust any of the illustrations of God’s love for the world that we find in the continuity of the two testaments, we must conclude that this love, far from accepting the status quo, wills to alter it drastically …

 

Jesus does not want to just meet us where we are and then stay there with us as we live our lives the same way, going through the same motions and fulfilling the same routines. He wants to bring us into a new kind of life—a life lived in relationship with him, filled with his blessing and promise, a life that becomes more like his life with each day that goes by. He calls us to lives of freedom—lives free of guilt, free of condemnation, free to experience everything that God desires for us.

I can’t say this often enough. Jesus does not condemn us. Jesus loves us. He has come to save us. Jesus is committed to us. Today, once again, he invites us to accept him. He also challenges us to follow him.

Yes. Here and now, Jesus challenges us. He challenges us to live lives that represent … him. Lives that point to him as the One who loves all people—and wants to be in relationship with each one of them.

So here’s the question: Do our lives point people to Jesus? Does yours? Does mine?

Yeah … Does my life point to Jesus? Sometimes I think so. Sometimes I’m not so sure. But I hope I’m getting better.

Fortunately, Jesus is used to dealing with sheep. He knows each one of us is a work in progress. Even so, he never ceases working on us. And that’s a good thing. Because, as our Shepherd tends to us, we can’t help but become more like him. The process might not be as fast as we would like. But it is sure to be completed.

On the way to the pasture, or after we get there, our status quo will be altered—drastically. And that’s a good thing, too! Thanks be to God.

WHAT’S REALLY REAL

The Third Sunday of Easter

TEXT: Luke 24:36b-48

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’  They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. (Luke 24:36b)

I want to begin today with a quote from the American theologian and writer Frederick Buechner. It’s from one of his books, The Clown in the Belfry, where Buechner writes:

A year or so ago, a friend of mine died … One morning in his sixty-eighth year he simply didn’t wake up.

It was as easy a way as he could possibly have done it, but it was not easy for the people he left behind because it gave us no chance to start getting used to the idea … or to say goodbye … He died in March, and in May my wife and I were staying with his widow overnight when I had a short dream about him.

I dreamed he was standing there in the dark guest room where we were asleep, looking very much himself in the navy blue jersey and white slacks he often wore. I told him how much we had missed him and how glad I was to see him again. He acknowledged that somehow. Then I said, “Are you really there, Dudley?”

I meant was he there in fact, in truth, or was I merely dreaming he was. His answer was that he was really there. “Can you prove it?” I asked him.

“Of course,” he said. Then he plucked a strand of wool out of his jersey and tossed it to me. I caught it between my thumb and forefinger, and the feel of it was so palpably real that it woke me up. That’s all there was to it …

I told the dream at breakfast the next morning, and I’d hardly finished when my wife spoke. She said that she’d seen the strand on the carpet as she was getting dressed. She was sure that it hadn’t been there the night before. I rushed upstairs to see for myself, and there it was—a little tangle of navy blue wool.

(The Clown in the Belfry, HarperCollins, 1992, pp. 7-8)

 

Buechner himself says he does not know what to make of that experience. Was it merely coincidence? Or was it something else?

I suspect that many—if not most—of us could tell similar stories, if we had the courage to talk about them. Buechner—a few paragraphs later in the same book—has this to say about his dream experience:

Maybe my friend really did come to me in my dream and the thread was his sign to me that he had. Maybe it is true that by God’s grace the dead are given back their lives again and that the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is not just a doctrine. (p. 9)

 

Maybe. Maybe such moments as Buechner describes really are just coincidences. Flukes. Quirks. Then again, maybe they are divine intrusions into our oh-so-rational world view, sent by heaven to shake up all of our ideas about what we think is real, or possible.

Maybe such moments mean nothing at all. Maybe they are caused by glitches or blips in the electrical circuitry of the human brain … Or maybe they mean everything! Maybe they connect us with a reality that is so deep, so real, and so wonderful that—if we were to look at it directly, its glory would incinerate us! So all we get is a hint—or a peek at it. As Frederick Buechner puts it: “A coincidence can be … God’s way of remaining anonymous …” (p. 11)

A dream may be no more than wishful thinking—or it may be a glimpse into the inner workings of what is really real!

Maybe what we refer to as “paranormal experiences” are what God uses to penetrate all those rational barriers which block the transcendent from our view. We modern folk—with our empiricism, our facts and figures, our love of probability and statistics … How often, I wonder, do we walk past a burning bush without even noticing it?

Maybe we’re all like the man who has spent too much time listening to heavy metal music with the volume on maximum—whose eardrums are now impervious to Debussy!

If we no longer hear God speaking to us, perhaps it is because we have lost the capacity to listen. If we no longer behold God’s face, perhaps it is because we have lost the capacity to see. Or maybe it’s just that—as products of our rational and logical society—we’re afraid to admit that we hear or see!

Imagine with me, won’t you? Imagine what it may have been like on that first Easter evening. Jesus’ disciples are huddled together in a room, frightened and despondent and defeated. Jesus is dead; they had watched him die.

One of them says: “I wasn’t that close to the cross, actually. But from where I was standing, toward the back, I could see that he was dead.”

Another one says: “It was a good campaign while it lasted. But we didn’t get him elected Messiah. He’s dead. It’s over. It’s finished.”

But then they hear a familiar voice saying: “Peace be with you!” And so, they turn and look—and there is Jesus, standing next to them.

“Peace be with you, my friends.”

But what they feel is anything but peace! They are startled, and they are terrified, and they think they’re seeing a ghost. Then the apparition steps closer, his arms outstretched.

“Look at my hands and my feet,” he says. “It’s me. It’s Jesus. Touch me and see for yourselves; a ghost does not have flesh and bones like I do.”

Still they can’t believe it. One of them asks, “Are you really there, Lord? Can you prove it?”

So he asks them for something to eat, and they give him a piece of fish. Before their wondering eyes, he eats it. Then he opens their minds to understand the Scriptures. And so they become witnesses. Having seen—and having touched—they come to believe.

But—then, as now—their story is too bizarre for most people to swallow. And the skeptics—which most of us are—dismiss the tale, and want to explain it away:

  • “It has to be some kind of hoax.”
  • “Something in the wine, maybe.”
  • “Mass hallucination induced by grief.”
  • “Post-traumatic stress.”

Sometimes, a miracle walks into the room, and we cannot see it. Our eyesight is too dim, or our vision is too under-developed—or too undisciplined—to look with the proper combination of curiosity and intelligence.

But sometimes, a miracle steps right in front of us—and we refuse to see it!

Sometimes the voice of God booms from the heavens, and we plug our ears. Sometimes our hearing has been made so dull by the din and roar of this world’s logic, this world’s wisdom, that God has to shout at us—or shake us up—in order to get our attention.

And you know, I think maybe that’s what Easter is all about! So—in this Easter season, especially—we would do well to think upon these things, and to ask God—every day—to take our blinders off and our earplugs out, the better to see what the Spirit wants to show us, and to hear what the Spirit wants to tell us.

May it be so for us—in this season of Easter, and always.

“There is no worse screen to block out the Spirit than confidence in our own intelligence.” —John Calvin (1509-1564)

 

THE MARK OF THE NAILS

SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER

TEXT: John 20:19-31 and Acts 4:32-35

But Thomas … was not with them when Jesus came … the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:24-25)

Poor Thomas. Every year, on the second Sunday of Easter, we hear about his doubt. He must be the most famous doubter in human history. Shortly after Jesus’ death and burial, all the others—the male disciples, and presumably also Mary Magdalene and the other women—came to Thomas and said, “We’ve seen the Lord! Jesus is alive!” But Thomas refused to believe it. Thomas needed to be shown. He had to see for himself. And a week later, he did. Jesus returned in the same way, to the same room behind the same closed doors—but this time Thomas was present.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus said. Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Now Thomas was convinced, but Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Like I said, Thomas must be the most famous doubter in all of human history. Even faced with the testimony of so many of his friends, he refused to believe until he had seen for himself. He wanted to see Jesus’ wounds, before he would believe it was really him. Thomas needed to be shown.

But you know … so did all the others! Remember last week’s gospel reading? After Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Christ, she ran to the other disciples to tell them—but it seems they didn’t believe her. In chapter 24 of Luke, we read that—when Mary Magdalene and the other women told the disciples they had seen Jesus alive—the men dismissed their account as “an idle tale” (Luke 24:11).

In chapter 28 of Matthew, we are told that—even after Jesus himself appeared to the remaining eleven disciples—“some doubted” (Matt. 28:17). And—referring again to last week’s gospel lesson—you may remember that even Mary Magdalene considered bodily resurrection so unlikely that she did not at first recognize Jesus when he appeared to her outside the tomb.

Do you see what I’m getting at? None of them believed that Jesus had been raised, until they had seen for themselves. And if Matthew’s gospel is correct, some of them did not believe, even after that!

They all needed to be shown. They all needed to see for themselves. On that first Easter evening, everyone but Thomas received tangible proof. All Thomas wanted was to see the same evidence that the others had seen.

Most of us need some kind of evidence (don’t we?) before we will believe the unbelievable. Personally, I think that Jesus is always giving us proof of his resurrection.

On one level, the Church itself is tangible evidence of it: we are Christ’s Body, and we are the living proof that he is risen. At least, we’re supposed to be. We’re supposed to be living his resurrected life in such a way that others will notice that we are different—and different in a good way!

You might ask, “What would that look like?” What would we look like? What might a congregation look like, if its members were really living a resurrected life? Well, one answer—one description—is given in today’s passage from the Book of Acts:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

Now, I’m not suggesting that we have to adopt that kind of “Christian Communism” here, today. I don’t read that passage from Acts and hear it saying we have to bring everyone down to the lowest level. I don’t think the text is promoting that. But it does promote taking care of others in the name of Jesus.

The early Church was a small family. They were misunderstood and regarded with suspicion. Even with the grace of God upon them, they had to stick together. Their unity was expressed in reaching out, in thinking of others. It wasn’t dinners or proclamations or cliques that they were known for, but for helping the community of believers. They took seriously the words of Jesus, who—after taking the role of a servant and washing his disciples’ feet—said to them: “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).

Their behaviour was part of their testimony to Christ’s resurrection. No wonder great grace was upon them all!

How did the people of Jerusalem and Palestine know that Jesus really was alive? There were more than 5,000 followers of the Way by then. But it wasn’t only by the testifying of the apostles. It wasn’t only by the joy on their faces. No. Above all else, the truth of Christ’s resurrection was demonstrated by their giving spirit, their caring ways, their concern for the less fortunate.



But what if they had not done this? What if they had not responded to the grace which was upon them? Would people have believed their message? I don’t think so.

People were attracted to this community of believers because they could see that they were different. They could see the risen Jesus shining in the faces of his followers, whose hearts and hands were as open as his empty grave.

In a book called From This Day Forward, Paul W. Kummer tells the following story:

Ruth Peterson reached out her door to get her mail. A very plain-looking envelope caught her attention first. It had no return address. Inside it was a one-page letter with these few words written on it: “Dear Ruth, I’m going to be in your neighborhood Saturday afternoon and I’d like to stop by for a visit.” And it was signed, “Love always, Jesus.”



Her hands were shaking as she placed the letter on her kitchen table. “Why would the Lord want to visit me? I’m nobody special. I don’t have anything to offer.” With that thought, Ruth remembered her empty kitchen cabinets. “Oh my goodness, I really don’t have anything to offer. I’ll have to run down to the store and buy something for dinner.” She reached for her purse and counted out its contents: $5.40. “Well, I can get some bread and cold cuts, at least.”



She threw on her coat and hurried out the door. A loaf of French bread, a half-pound of sliced turkey, and a carton of milk. That left Ruth with a grand total of twelve cents to last her until Monday. Nonetheless, she felt happy as she headed home, her meager offering tucked under her arm.

“Hey, lady, can you help us, lady?”

Ruth had been so absorbed in her dinner plan, she hadn’t even noticed two figures huddled in the alleyway—a man and a woman, both of them dressed in little more than rags.

“Look, lady, I ain’t got a job, ya know, and my wife and I have been living out here on the street, and, well, now it’s getting cold and we’re getting kinda hungry and, well, if you could help us, lady, we’d really appreciate it.”



Ruth looked at them both. They were dirty, they smelled bad and, frankly, she was certain that they could get some kind of work if they really wanted to.

“Sir, I’d like to help you, but I’m a poor woman myself. All I have is a few cold cuts and some bread, and I’m having an important guest for dinner tonight and I was planning on serving that to him.”

“Yeah, well, okay, lady, I understand. Thanks anyway.” The man put his arm around the woman’s shoulders, turned and headed back into the alley. As she watched them leave, Ruth felt a familiar twinge in her heart.

“Sir, wait!” The couple stopped and turned as she ran down the alley after them. “Look, why don’t you take this food? I’ll figure out something else to serve my guest.” She handed the man her grocery bag.

“Thank you, lady. Thank you very much!”

“Yes, thank you!” It was the man’s wife, and Ruth could see now that she was shivering.

“You know, I’ve got another coat at home. Here, why don’t you take this one?”

Ruth unbuttoned her jacket and slipped it over the woman’s shoulders. Then, smiling, she turned and walked back down the street … without her coat and with nothing to serve her guest.



Ruth was chilled by the time she reached her front door, and worried, too. The Lord was coming to visit and she didn’t have anything to offer him. She fumbled through her purse for the door key. But as she did, she noticed another envelope in her mailbox.

“That’s odd. The mailman doesn’t usually come twice in one day.” She took the envelope out of the box and opened it.

“Dear Ruth, it was good to see you again. Thank you for the lovely meal. And thank you, too, for the beautiful coat. Love always, Jesus.”



The air was still cold, but even without her coat, Ruth no longer noticed.*

 

Do people see God for who he really is by what they see in you … and in me? Do they see the mark of the nails upon our hands?

Some people will never come to believe the Good News until they see us getting down and dirty for them, sacrificing ourselves for them, giving up some of our comforts for them. Then they will finally see Jesus—alive and well, showing his wounds … and offering his peace.

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! The grave is open; let our hearts and hands be open, too! Amen.

_________________________

* quoted at http://www.sermonsuite.com/free.php?i=788013960&key=hmsvCPvd5py7tghj